How to Exercise with a Face Mask

Burning fitness question of the moment: If you have to wear a mask to work out, what’s the right way to do it? And how to do it with an activity like rowing that’s often high-intensity? Is it even a good idea?


Many of us don’t have a choice in the matter. Our gyms have decided that the only way we’re getting back in is if we wear a mask, even while working out. Other gyms and states have decided that wearing a mask while doing the actual workout is optional, although you have to wear one any time you’re not working out.

If you’re a fitness professional, though, it may come down to a choice between putting that mask on and working. The good news is, you don’t have to choose. It IS possible to wear a mask while working out or teaching. We dive in.


Should You Wear A Mask While Workout Out?

A webinar on fitness and face masks from the American Council on Exercise (the same organization that accredits our rowing instructor certifications) provides some great general guidance. It was with ACE President Dr. Cedric Bryant and Dr. Len Kravitz from the University of New Mexico, one of the best-known researchers in the exercise-science field.

Recognizing that masks are likely to be part of our lives for a while, the two have begun looking into a research review and their own investigation into the effects of wearing a mask while exercising.

Read on for the key conclusions from the webinar, and some rowing-specific guidance.


Key Things About Wearing Masks

1. Wearing a mask to work out is safe for most people. It could be a problem, however, for those with underlying conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. Even seasonal allergies can be problematic.


2. Leave room for adaptation: Exercisers, and the people who train them, need to remember that many of us have lost some fitness since our gyms closed. Add a mask and the associated oxygen restriction, and the environment gets more complicated.

It’s recommended to progress slowly and gradually while the body adapts (and it will). Bottom line: Don’t jump right back into your high-intensity workout routine.


3. You may feel the effects even when resting: To the researchers’ surprise, the potential effects of masks (dizziness, light-headedness, shortness of breath) can persist or appear even into the time when we’re recovering from exercise.

All the more reason to provide a socially distanced place for people to step aside from the workout, take their mask off (by touching the ear loops not the mask itself!), and get their breath back if needed.


4. Older athletes may be more vulnerable to feeling the effects of working out with a mask on. Dr. Kravitz also discussed anecdotal reports that balance may be affected in older mask wearers, so that’s important to watch for.


5. Additionally, hydration is also key for older athletes, and even more important when exercising with a mask on. A quick pre-workout “body check” for “What have I had to drink, how am I feeling, does anything hurt?” is recommended.


6. Use the talk test or RPE to measure intensity: There is early evidence that heart rates will be higher in those wearing masks. Bryant recommends using the talk test to gauge whether you’re in an appropriate range of intensity: Can you talk, and how many words can you say at one time?


What Makes A Good Workout Mask?

Kravitz is not a fan of wearing a surgical mask to your workout. Instead, he recommends using a washable one made of moisture-wicking fabric on the inside and a water-repellent layer outside. If the fabric is anti-microbial, even better he says.

He also recommends having more than one mask so that you can rotate them out and also change them if one gets wet with sweat during your workout.

And while you’re at it, bag the buff. For a time, buffs were popular among fitness enthusiasts as a face covering, but Kravitz doesn’t like them. They’re designed to keep you warm and not dissipate heat, which is what’s needed during exercise, he says.

Leave it to a rower to design a workout mask that passes muster. Our friends at Sew Sporty, makers of popular rowing gear, caught the eye of the crew at the Seattle Times with their cloth mask. In fact, it was the only one the Times wanted to wear to run outside!


What About Your Rowing Workout?

Since rowing is my specialty, these advice is rowing-specific, but can definitely be used for any kind of workouts you’re doing in the gym.

Your first workout back in the gym probably isn’t the right time to try that 2K PR. All the more so if you’re having to wear a mask. Take it easy, and trainers give your students and clients permission to do so.

Reduce your target splits and stroke rates, and also the overall length of the class.

You may need to do that anyway if you need to give the equipment a good cleaning between classes. While we’re on that subject, check Concept2’s tips for the best way to clean your rowing machine between uses.

Regarding placement of rowing machines, Concept2 recommends holding rowing classes outside if possible for maximum airflow. And inside, a 6-foot separation between machines will reduce but not eliminate all risk of spreading virus.

USRowing, meanwhile, recommends at least 12 feet of space between machines indoors and staggering them. Also open doors and windows to increase ventilation, but avoid turning on fans. USRowing also recommends wiping down all fitness equipment with disinfectant before and after each use. [HINT: You should be doing that anyway.]


Remember: We Can Do This!

While we would all prefer to work out freely with nothing we don’t want on our faces, the masked workout is definitely something we can adjust to.

In the ACE webinar, Bryant referenced research on workouts with elevation masks as proof that adapting to this brave new masked world is definitely possible. We just all have to give it time and take it easy.

This article is slightly edited from its original version at UCanRow2.



Sarah Fuhrmann is one of the leading voices in the rowing community. Her company UCanRow2 brings the power of indoor rowing to exercisers and fitness professionals worldwide. She is the author of 101 Best Rowing Workouts.